Degrees of Poor

By CONNIE GUNTER

NONFICTION PRIZE WINNER

Judge: Richard Goodman,
author of French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France, The Soul of Creative Writing, and The Bicycle Diaries: One New Yorker’s Journey Through 9/11
“With grace and affection, the author gives us a moving portrait of her parents and the struggles they went through to provide for their family in a small Appalachian town, where every penny counted. At the
same time, this love and respect the writer has for her hard-working parents is set against her contending with the shame of poverty, meeting face-to-face the reality of class and its strict hierarchy.
The writing is lyrical and honest, and the story carries with it a deep resonance, because, even with the profound admiration the writer has for her parents, she does not avert her eyes to the internal conflicts those difficult and humiliating circumstances created.”

 

The desire for acceptance is as instinctive as breathing for the first time. As a teenager growing up in the 1970’s, I was fully aware of the social hierarchy in my small town, and I knew I was not at the top of the ladder. Yet I longed to be. I wanted to fit in, to be part of the popular crowd and share in the exciting life they appeared to have in our small Appalachian town. It was difficult because we were poor. The basic need to belong and feel accepted seemed so simple to satisfy, but it wasn’t.

I belonged in the Poor-but-Clean group, which made it hard for others to distinguish my position on the ladder. This allowed the opportunity to mingle with the Has-Mores and the Has-a-Lots. It was clear where others ranked, like those who were poor by fate due to illness or death in the family—the Feel-Sorry-For group. News of tragedy spread quickly through our small community. At the bottom rung was the Poor-and-Nasty group. Everyone knew where they stood. Thinking back, I suppose everyone knew we were poor, but I thought it was a well-kept secret.

We were a family of six: Dad, Mom, one older brother, two older sisters, and me. My dad Lexter was a quiet man, all of five feet six inches, weighing 140 pounds on a humid day. Dad had it rough from the very beginning. Born in 1926, he was the youngest of eight children. Two years into his life, his mother died of breast cancer and left the children to a heartbroken husband. Dad’s 12-year-old sister Gracie lost her childhood that day and became mother to them all. Dad’s father Will was lost and bereaved and decided to leave the mountains of North Carolina. He headed south to Blairsville, Georgia, away from the ever-present memories of his beloved Martha. Packed in a wagon, the nine set out with hopes for a better life.

Grandpa Will landed a good-paying job with the State of Georgia building roads. A state job was much sought after during the Depression era. The family began to ascend from the Feel-Sorry-For group into the Has-Mores group. Grandpa Will began to be happy again, and the family was coping fairly well with the lot life had handed them. It came to a spiraling crash when election time came four years later. All things being political, when the opposing side won and the newly elected took office, Grandpa was let go. The family lost everything but the old wagon that had brought them there. They loaded up and returned to the mountains from whence they came.

They found the homeplace in shambles after years of neglect. Windows were broken, the spring had stopped flowing, and they didn’t have enough buckets to catch the water seeping through the roof on rainy days. Everywhere they looked they found problems, but no problem was greater than the need for food and a dry spot to sleep at night. The discouraged older brothers set out to find work. During the Depression era, logging was the only occupation available for most men in the mountains. Three of Dad’s brothers were able to find work at logging camps up in the Snowbird Mountains, leaving Grandpa Will to do the house repairs and feed the children that remained. It was slow going. He was skilled in woodworking but few could afford to hire him. He began building caskets, as it was a job not many were willing to do. It wasn’t a steady income either because there were only so many funerals in the small community.

Dad wanted to help in the woodshop, but he was still a young boy. Against his wishes, Grandpa Will sent him to school. There was no record of his progress in Georgia, so the teacher assessed him for his placement. He didn’t do too well. Shy and backward, he stammered through the interview. “I was so flustered, I lost what little sense I did have,” he mentioned to me once. As a result, he was put back two grades. “Yep, I was a big boy with the little kids.”

He was ashamed by any difference between him and the other children. As others pulled out sandwiches made of store-bought bread, he had a single piece of cornbread or a boiled potato, or some days nothing at all. So he hid when he ate his lunch. As he observed his classmates, he was aware of what made him the same as the other poor children. He recalled one day when the teacher asked a boy named Roy up to the front to have a look at his work. Roy was dirty and generally smelled, but didn’t seem to have a care in the world as he stepped up to her desk. As he handed his paper to Miss Martin, she looked at him and asked, “Roy, what in heaven’s name is on your sleeve?” Roy looked down his grimy shirt to his brown and green covered sleeve. He replied, “You a school teacher and don’t know what snot is?” The children roared with laughter. Daddy didn’t laugh. He looked at his own grungy clothes and realized he was part of the Poor-and-Nasty group, too. This realization ended his education. At the completion of the fourth grade Dad left the classroom for good, joining his brothers to log the mountain land. Determined to change his life, at the age of 12 he left his childhood behind.

For the next 15 years, he worked for any logger needing an extra hand. During that time he fell from the moon for a girl named Ruth. They married, and in a few years the four of us kids were toddling around. Out in town, Lees Industries opened a factory and began hiring. So Dad decided to give it a go at making carpets. For the first time in his life, the paychecks were steady and a little money was put away. However, he never saw the sun shine during that time, going in before daylight and leaving after dark. He said once he couldn’t remember how it felt to breathe the fresh air and feel the warmth of the sun. He lost all the spare weight he had, and nearing 100 pounds, Mom said enough was enough. They took what money they had saved and bought a used truck and some logging equipment. He began working alone, free from the dark, windowless carpet mill. Dad said, “I guess I’m not cut out for indoor work.” He loved the outdoors, liked his solitude, and answered to no one.

The U.S. Forest Service was the resource for his timber. They would select the largest trees on the government property, tag them, and inform all the loggers in the county they were ready to take cash bids. The highest bid won the contract. Since Dad was a logging crew of one with little cash to offer, he mostly ended up with leftover tracts of land that nobody wanted, usually steep as a mule’s face. “At least I know which way the tree will fall,” he said with a sparkle in his blue eyes. His work was usually way back in the mountains, sometimes as far as Tellico Plains, Tennessee. Many times he would leave for work as early as four in the morning.

One summer, our whole family camped with him across from his job site. We pitched a tent in a shaded area near a small creek at the foot of the mountain he was logging. The next morning I watched as Dad gathered up a can of gas and oil, his chainsaw, a file for his chain, and his metal dinner bucket that cradled a red-checkered thermos. Loaded with all he could carry, he climbed the steep mountain slope. He spent most of the morning cutting down trees. He never yelled timber like they do on TV. We knew when the chainsaw idled and he switched sides of the tree to cut the final connecting piece from its base, it was coming down. You heard the pop, the crack, and the moan of the tree as it surrendered and crashed to the ground with a loud boom. It struck the earth with such force, the ground would shake beneath your feet; then there was silence. From the foot of the mountain where I stood, I could smell the rich earthy scent of fresh cut hardwoods—white oak, red maple, and tulip poplar. I breathed it into my lungs; it was intoxicating, nothing like I had ever smelled before.

Retrieving the logs to the landing was an arduous task as well. Pulling the metal cable from the winch to retrieve each log meant a dozen trips up and down the steep grade of the mountain. When his strength was gone and he could climb no longer, he would take a break at the top—open his dinner bucket and pull out his thermos and a pack of Camels. A hot cup of coffee and a cigarette were two of his favorite things.

Dad didn’t tarry long, and by late afternoon the logs were lying on the bank above Dad’s red truck. He bridged the gap between the truck and the bank with large round poles. With help from a tool called a peevee, he would roll log after log across the poles from the bank onto the bed of the truck. He would stack them in an orderly fashion, chain them down, and haul them to the sawmill.

He didn’t mind the hard work, but logging did have its disadvantages. His work schedule was at the mercy of the elements. In winter when snow was on the ground, he would ball hoot the logs down the mountainside, a chaotic method he enjoyed. To ball hoot, he would cut the tree then round the end of the log facing down the mountain like a giant torpedo. He used the peevee to rock the log back and forth until it broke loose from the ground and started sliding down the snow-covered mountain. The noise was unbelievable as the log shot down the slope, bouncing off rocks, trees, and anything else that stood in its path. When the day ended, he hoped the logs would be somewhere in reach of his winch when the weather cleared.

The rainy days and the long, cold winters took a toll on our income, as did one certain employee at the sawmill who would never give him a fair price for his logs. James Nelson had been hired at Bemis Lumber Company to scale the logs, measure them, and make up the ticket for Dad to carry to the office for his pay. Bemis paid by the length, width, and the quality of the log. This measurement was Dad’s ever-present thought as he cut timber and loaded the truck. He knew his load’s worth as he pulled onto the lumberyard. Seeing Nelson at the scales was discouraging. Nelson wasn’t from the mountains; they said he was a cousin of somebody important at the sawmill. Dad could tell he knew very little about timber. He would measure the outside section and guess what was in the middle. Upon noticing any small, visible defect on the outside of a log, he would give a low quality grade or reject the log altogether. Nelson treated the more prominent logging contractors with more respect and was generous with his calculations for their timber. He would make up for his generosity to them when he shorted Dad on his measurements. As far as I knew, Dad never confronted him about his dishonesty nor did he complain to the office. One morning I overheard him talking to Mom about this, and it concerned me. I knew my dad to be the most humble, honest man in the county. Upset by Nelson’s injustice, I asked Dad later that evening why he didn’t get a job at the forest service or the power company. He smiled at me and gave me a hug. “Honey, I’m unschooled.” My heart burned inside my chest. How could I have asked him that?

So we made do with what we had, and my mom spun the earnings into more with her hard work. She grew huge vegetable gardens, canned all summer long, kept hogs out back to slaughter, and managed a coop of laying hens. On top of all that, she was the best cook around. I can’t remember a morning we didn’t have fried eggs, bacon, sausage, gravy, and biscuits with homemade blackberry jam or sourwood honey from our beehives.

Our house was immaculate. We could have eaten off the hardwood floors. They were scrubbed and mopped each and every day. The hardwoods were polished with such a thick coat of wax you could see your reflection when the noonday sun shined through the spotless windows. Mom never allowed any of us to mow the yard; that was her job. Every blade of grass was manicured just so. On the hottest days of summer, you could find her with a reap hook chopping the weeds away from flowers she had planted on the red-clay bank above our house. She never stopped working.

When she wasn’t outside working, she was inside working. When she wasn’t cleaning, she was washing. She would feed the old wringer washer one piece at a time, keeping our three changes of clothes spotlessly clean. She ironed everything—handkerchiefs, pillowcases, undershorts, and all our outer wear. She believed that even a worn shirt properly starched looked good below a fresh-washed face. And it did.

Her life had not been a merry-go-round either. Her folks were farmers, and she was one of nine children. Proud and hardworking, they lived a simple life. Their world was upturned when her dad lost his left leg in a wagon accident. They were plunged into the Feel-Sorry-For group during his recovery. The outpouring of the community sustained them and kept the family fed. Her dad, Leslie, was appreciative of how everyone had helped them, although he didn’t feel right about continuing to take handouts. Searching for a new profession, he learned of a place in the eastern part of the state where they trained men to repair watches and jewelry. He believed this was something a one-legged farmer with sharp eyes and a big smile could do. The family struggled while he was gone, but during that time a blessing came in the form of an elderly gentleman named Frank Cook. He was distant kin and everyone called him Uncle Frank. He had never been married or had a home of his own, but when he showed up to help, he made it part of his daily duties to split the firewood and keep the kids laughing. His crazy antics and storytelling kept them in stitches. Mom adored him.

Grandpa Leslie’s training was an 18-month program, but he wouldn’t settle for that. He completed the course within a year and surprised the family when he came home early. Working out of the back room at the local cloth shop, he did well with his business and made enough to support his family. He also became a minister and reciprocated the love and kindness to the community shown to him during those hard times. But hardship revisited the family while they were away at a prayer meeting one night. Uncle Frank had stayed back at the house when a fire broke out in the chimney of the rock fireplace. The fire destroyed their home, but that wasn’t the worst part. Trying to contain the fire, Uncle Frank died in the flames. The loss of their home put them right back into the Feel-Sorry-For group from which they had worked so hard to overcome. It was devastating, but the loss of Uncle Frank was even worse.

That night scarred Mom for the rest of her life. From that point forward, she couldn’t let go of the sorrow about Uncle Frank and she could never overcome her fear of fire. This caused her to obsess over turning off the kitchen stove or unplugging anything electrical should we leave for a while. She couldn’t and wouldn’t take the simple, shingled farmhouse Dad had cobbled together for granted.

Dad and Mom had never known life without a struggle to make ends meet. They didn’t seem to question their social standing, but growing up I struggled with my identity and where I fit in. I was continually observing others who had more, as well as those who seemed to struggle with finances like we did. There was one family I figured some of the town folk must have looked after. Margie Hammond was mother to five and her husband was dead. They fell into the Feel-Sorry-For group. They lived in one of the row houses behind a stretch of stores. Those homes reminded me of the green square houses sold to line the property of a Monopoly game, the kind you want to trade in for the big, two-story red pieces. Mrs. Hammond took in laundry from some of the storeowners and schoolteachers. Between caring for her own and the hired-out laundry work, the woman rarely left her house. She kept her family fed with a washer, a clothesline, and an iron. The Has-Mores and the Has-a-Lots must have taken an interest in the children and provided them with the beautiful clothes they wore. From their outward appearance, it was as if they weren’t poor at all, dressed in the finest hand-me-downs.

However, there was no mistaking the Poor-and-Nasty group. Every aspect of their being easily identified them. Ragged dirty clothes, unwashed faces, and uncombed hair were just a few of the ways to spot them. Such were the Tilleys. The Tilleys kept to themselves, and most everyone either obliged or ignored them. Not our church, however. We took prayer meeting to them once. The preacher said that they were unchurched.

I had successfully remained separate from the Tilleys even though they rode my school bus. They lived so far out they were the first ones on and the last ones off. They chose to sit in the back of the bus, and I didn’t venture back there. One Sunday right before the fall of the year when I was 13 or so, the preacher announced he had spoken with the Tilleys, and Wednesday prayer meeting would be held at their house. Oh no. Not there. Not at their house. I felt that setting up service in their home was an invasion, nothing I wanted to be part of, but I knew I would be going. Missing church was not a choice in our family; we went every time the door was open.

The next Wednesday everyone met at the church and formed a procession to drive to the Tilley’s house. It was at least five miles past our place, and we lived 10 miles out of town. I had never been this far up Taylor Cove Road. At the end of the main road, a steep dirt road turned up a hill to the right. We followed the other cars and began to drive over holes and rocks. Our low-slung car began to bounce and scrape the bottom. Before any permanent damage occurred, the cars ahead stopped. We had to walk the rest of the way with the hot evening sun beating down on us. As I walked, I looked. Their land was at the end of nothing. Crops of rocks grew out of red-clay dirt; not a grain of beneficial life did I see in the hard-packed soil. In front of the house overgrown weeds accented an old, abandoned car. Kitchen trash was everywhere, empty milk jugs, a lard bucket, coffee cans, empty dog food sacks, and discarded cigarette packages littered the yard.

Twenty feet away from the house on the opposite side of the dirt driveway, dogs started taking a fit, barking, bellowing, and lunging forward, jumping to the end of their chains. I was gripped with fear, terrified they were going to break loose. The noise was deafening. There were seven or eight of them chained to rusted barrels, which were cut open and overturned on their side to form a makeshift home. Even weeds feared to grow near the dogs. The door opened and Mr. Tilley yelled, “Shut up!” The barking ceased except for a few whimpers.

So there we stood, waiting, the 20 of us outside the house of rough-sawn gray boards. Between the cracks in the boards dirt-dauber wasps were building their mud tunnels. The once-white paint on the frame of the windows was peeling, and the glass was coated with red-clay dust.

The Tilley man stepped aside as the reluctant eight walked out onto the rickety porch. The mother led, barely looking up, she seemed so shy. Their seven kids were all boys. Thin and tall, they had messy blond hair and wore ragged overalls atop checked shirts with beat-up, dirty work boots on their feet. From their sizes it appeared they had been born barely a year apart. I quickly turned my head, not wanting to see Tommy, who was my age. We had never spoken and I didn’t want to now. They weren’t ugly boys; in fact, Mom once said if the Tilley boys were all clean and dressed in nice clothes, the young girls would swoon when they saw them. I couldn’t see it; I couldn’t get past the way they were.

I felt a twinge of dread in my stomach when they asked us to come in. The room’s only light came from a small window next to the front door. As we walked in, the late shadows of evening caused the room to darken. From the center of the living room ceiling hung a naked white bulb with a pull chain. When Mr. Tilly turned on the light it revealed clothes piled in the corners, dust, hair, and dirt on the nasty floors. The kitchen was visible from the room as well. Supper dishes, pots, and pans remained where used; the smell of boiled cabbage and stale cigarettes filled the air.

The men stood with their backs to the walls as best as they could, but they seated us, the women and children, in straight-back chairs and on a frayed couch. As I scooted back in the couch, it felt as if my clothes would stick to it. Everywhere I looked, the room was in disarray. No one had cleaned even though they knew we were coming. I couldn’t believe they lived this way when soap and water could make such a change. All I could do was wonder why.

My dad had brought his guitar and led us in song. On and on we sang; the Tilleys stayed silent not knowing the words. Then the preacher took his turn. He begged, he pleaded for them to change their ways. “Bring those boys to church,” he said, “before it’s too late.” I snuck a peak at their faces when those words were being said. I saw solemn, cold eyes staring at the floor as the sermon dragged on and on. I wanted it to be over, and I was sure the Tilleys had never wanted this to happen at all.

When the invitation for salvation was given, the Tilleys never came forward. We sang our last song and wished them goodnight. No change came to the family. The next morning they took their place in the back of the bus as they’d always done. But for a long time after, I would think of the angry dogs lunging at us and remember the shiver I felt as we walked into the darkness to reach our car. Poor-and-Nasty.

As I entered my high school years, my place in society in the rural town became more important than anything. I realized status was at the mercy of the other teenage girls and boys. They were judges, jurors, and executioners. One Saturday, Mom insisted we head to town to find a dress for my class trip, a trip we could barely afford. By then I could drive, so I was to chauffer my mom, who’d never been licensed for a car. We were going to Shepherds’, the rich people’s store. Their boy was so handsome, I dreamed of having him for my own. His name was Danny—he had liked me once when we were in fifth grade. It felt like quite an honor for a poor girl like me. He had sent word to me through one of his friends that he’d like to meet me at the movies that very night. Without hesitating for a minute, I had said to tell him I would be there. Mom was furious with me because it was a school night. Dad had worked till dark, and he was tired and dirty and too worn out to take me. My oldest sister, who still lived with us, was waiting on a phone call from her husband who was away working out of town. No one else could drive. Frantic, I found Danny’s number in the phone book and called his home. No one answered. I called their store and it was closed. I called his grandmother’s restaurant, but he wasn’t there. As the evening wore on, I worried. The next day the same boy who had delivered the movie invitation let me know Danny wasn’t my boyfriend anymore. I was crushed to find out Danny had stood outside long after the movie had started, waiting for me at the movie theater door. (All these years later, that fifth grade date is what I think of when I see Danny or run into him at his family store.)

The shopping center was where most of the commerce in our town took place. I hoped I wouldn’t see Danny; I didn’t want him to see me with my mom. As I turned right into the lot, Mom said, “There’s a parking place out front.” Oh God. Not right in front of the stores. Our ancient blue Oldsmobile said it all. It put me in my place as I parked and opened the oversized door. Saturday, town day, most people had their whole family in tow; a day everyone could take a look at who raised you; a day that revealed the family tree. As I stepped onto the busy sidewalk, Mom crossed in front of me and passed right by the store. Unaware of where she was headed, I followed as she made her way down the busy sidewalk. She walked over to a woman, the Tilley woman, and spoke. Oh God, please don’t. Not here, not now. People will think she is our friend. I felt as if the three of us stood in a pedigree show. Here we were like a flock of birds, a gaggle of geese, a herd of goats, defined by how we looked and where we gathered.

Mom continued to talk as the Tilley woman kept her head bent low. Mrs. Tilley hadn’t even styled her hair for town day, her dress had dark stains, and she wore a shabby beige sweater. I could tell she had nothing much to say, and she didn’t even smile. Mom did all the talking, and I thought she would never hush. Waving goodbye as we finally walked away, Mom smiled and called out, “It was good to see you again!”

I was furious, but my mom didn’t know it. Inside Shepherds’ I could hold my anger no longer. “Why did you have to talk to her? Why couldn’t we just come in the store? Why did you do that?”

Mom stopped. She turned and we met eye to eye. She took a deep breath as if to calm herself inside. “Have you ever thought that when I spoke to her it might have been the only kind word said to her today? Do you know what it’s like to be unloved or have no one care?”

I looked across the room hoping no one had heard. The Has-Mores were happily shopping, flipping through the dresses of yellows and blues. They weren’t worried about the Tilleys. Neither were the Has-a-Lots, as the chance of one of them meeting a Tilley was near to none. As I stood in the store of many beautiful clothes, Mom’s words continued to circle in my mind. The room grew warm, the air hard to breathe, and my legs went shaky. The display of pretty things turned so dull, so pale, so nothing at all.

Now years past, I do not remember the people who saw us outside. I do not remember the color of the dress Mom bought me. I do not remember leaving the store. But I do remember the following Monday, our class trip, my blue suitcase in hand, and the overall excitement in the crowded hallway as we waited to board the Trailway bus. I distinctly remember seeing Tommy Tilley. I remember watching as he tried to avoid us, pressing his body ever so close to the dark yellow walls. I do remember he held no suitcase. And I will never forget the weight of mine.

 

Connie Adams Gunter is native to the small Appalachian town of Robbinsville, North Carolina. As a girl she spent Sunday afternoons listening to relatives tell stories about years past and the challenges of mountain life. Capturing their history and putting it on paper has been a lifelong dream she is now making a reality. One of her chapters from her family’s tales was published in the 2014 fall issue of The Great Smokies Review. “Degrees of Poor” reflects her own experience in Robbinsville as a teenager during the 1970’s. Gunter is a graduate of Montreat College. She and her husband, Keith, are the parents of two daughters, Noel and Nikki, and have a wirehaired dachshund, Raymond. They recently reclaimed a log cabin originally built in 1853 in the Eastern Tennessee mountains and reconstructed it on their homesite off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville, North Carolina.


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2 comments

  1. Beautiful, descriptive writing! In such a short section, I got to know the family, and their hardships. Mountain living can be harder than most, and Connie did justice to the ties that bond these families.

  2. Ah yes, I know this family and they are fine thrifty folk. What you don’t read is that they came from the degree from which they came to grow up and have a daughter who graduated from the Air Force Academy.

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